Book Review: The Witch of Napoli by Michael Schmicker

witch of napoliItaly 1899: Fiery-tempered, erotic medium Alessandra Poverelli levitates a table at a Spiritualist séance in Naples. A reporter photographs the miracle, and wealthy, skeptical, Jewish psychiatrist Camillo Lombardi arrives in Naples to investigate. When she materializes the ghost of his dead mother, he risks his reputation and fortune to finance a tour of the Continent, challenging the scientific and academic elite of Europe to test Alessandra’s mysterious powers. She will help him rewrite Science. His fee will help her escape her sadistic husband Pigotti and start a new life in Rome. Newspapers across Europe trumpet her Cinderella story and baffling successes, and the public demands to know – does the “Queen of Spirits” really have supernatural powers? Nigel Huxley is convinced she’s simply another vulgar, Italian trickster. The icy, aristocratic detective for England’s Society for the Investigation of Mediums launches a plot to trap and expose her. The Vatican is quietly digging up her childhood secrets, desperate to discredit her supernatural powers; her abusive husband Pigotti is coming to kill her; and the tarot cards predict catastrophe.

From Netgalley in exchange for a review. Published in early 2015 by Palladino Books

It is 1918, and Tomaso Labella, an Italian newspaper editor, has just returned from burying Alessandra. Both of them have had a long history together, after Tomaso (aged 16) was sent to photograph Alessandra in 1898 for the local paper. Married to a violent drunk, she has already established a name for performing at séances and talking to the dead.

The rest of the story is Tomaso telling about Alessandra and the next year or so, being investigated for her possibly fraudulent psychic talents. She travels much of Europe with Tomaso and Lombardi, and is tested by many magicians, doctors and scientists.  Much of the story concentrates on the seances that Alessandra performs for her guests, including the physical manifestation of a powerful mad priest from several centuries before. However it is the Englishman Huxley who gets under her skin and threatens everything, occasionally playing to her Neapolitan ego to provoke her into certain actions, with a final, fatal scene destroying everything.

This is a difficult book to try and describe any deeper without recreating the book itself. Much of the story is rather matter of fact, a fast paced physically demanding tour around Europe where Alessandra has to “perform” nearly every night she’s staying still in one city or another. Lombardi (and to an extent Tomaso) holds a torch for her, but her pride, her goals, and her violent husband back in Naples, makes it difficult to love back, even after Lombardi divorces his wife and risks his reputation for her several times. There is a sub plot about the Vatican investigation Alessandra’s history, that could have been expanded out a little more – it seems to have little purpose beyond the appearance of someone from Alessandra’s past just ahead of the final seance, but no more.

Despite the story starting with Alessandra’s death in 1918, the final chapters are unexpected enough to make it interesting, if not necessarily unexpected. Not having read anything else by this author, but knowing he’s an ex-newspaper-man, I dont know whether the writing style of this novel is his own, or deemed suitable for a fictionalised story of an Italian medium who was investigated during the late 19th, early 20th century.

The author can be found on Amazon here





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